Search engines have become the easiest and fastest way for most people to do everything from finding nearby businesses and services, locating friends on social media (and in real life), and vetting and contacting doctors.
It’s hard to imagine living without this free service, but mainstream search engines come at a price: Your privacy. If the idea of search engines tracking and profiting off your personal information makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone. This discomfort is the raison d’être for a whole new crop of private search engines, which are designed to help you take control of your digital life.
How mainstream search engines work
The world’s most popular search engines are all free to use. These include Google, which accounts for 92 percent of the worldwide search engine market share and whose name has become synonymous with the act of searching; Microsoft Bing, representing just under 3 percent of the market share; and Yahoo (less than 2 percent).
But just because they don’t charge you to use their product doesn’t mean they’re not making money. In fact, their business models rely on something incredibly lucrative: Your personal data. Whenever you type search terms into one of these mainstream search engines, they collect data including your IP address, location, what you searched for, which results you clicked on, and more. They then sell this personal information to third parties, and use it to create targeted ads.
That’s right: Your Google searches are worth money, and you have almost no control over how Google or any other mainstream search engine will use the data they’ve gathered about you, or how long they will store it.
What is a private search engine?
Broadly speaking, a private search engine is a search engine that does not sell or share your data without your consent. There are two main types of private search engines.
Anonymous search engines. Also known as no-log search engines, these services strive to be truly anonymous, meaning that they do not collect users’ data. Anonymous search engines are typically ads-supported, meaning that they are free to use, but if you happen to click on any ads, that data may be tracked.
Subscription-based private search engines. These search engines collect your information to provide a better search experience, but they don’t sell your data. Instead, they make their money from a small subscription fee.
“Private” or incognito browsing modes vs. private search engines
The difference between private search engines and “private” browsing modes lies in who your search data is being kept private from.
When you open a private browsing window, you’re basically letting the browser know that you don’t want it to store any information (such as your search history or logins) in your current search session. This can be a great tool if you’re using a shared computer, but it won’t protect your data from any websites you might use, including search engines. This is why it’s entirely possible to see targeted ads based on searches you did while in “private” or Incognito mode.
To search the internet without having your personal data shared and sold to third-party sources, you’ll need to use a private search engine.
Privacy vs. anonymity
Anonymous search engines allow you to browse the web without collecting your data. They can’t sell your data or tailor your experience, since they have no information about you—you’re completely anonymous. Anonymous search engines define anonymity differently: some don’t collect any data at all, some encrypt or aggregate the data so that it can’t be traced back to you, and others delete the data within a set period of time. Since you’re an anonymous user, every time you use the search engine, it will be as if you’re using it for the first time.
Private search engines, on the other hand, may still collect some data about you, but it remains private, since they don’t share it with third parties.
Top 4 private search engines
Some of the most popular private search engines include:
DuckDuckGo. With 0.64 percent of the global market share, United States–based DuckDuckGo is the most popular of the anonymous search engines. DuckDuckGo does save your search queries, but does not connect them to any of your personally identifiable information, such as your IP address. Duckduckgo serves search results and ads from its partner, Bing. It makes money when you click on these ads. While Duckduckgo does not itself "track" you, clicking on an ad in Duck's results can result in other parties tracking you.
Startpage. This anonymous search engine from the Netherlands uses Google’s search ranking algorithm, but promises not to track, store, or sell your data. Additionally, startpage provides the option for an “anonymous view” that uses a proxy server to hide your IP address and location from other websites. Recently, a U.S.-based ad tech company acquired a large share of Startpage, raising concerns for some users.
Qwant. This French anonymous search engine does not collect user data, but it does have an option to register with your name and email address to save search queries. Qwant allows users to filter through categories including shopping, news, images, videos, and social media—a feature that some anonymous search engines lack. Its revenue comes from ads, which are generated via Microsoft Bing.
Neeva. Neeva is a subscription-based private search engine that balances privacy with personalization by collecting some data to improve user experience, but giving the user control over their data. Since Neeva is user funded, they won’t serve you ads, and they’ll never sell your info to third parties.
There are a few other alternative search engines to know, most of which are based in Europe. MetaGer and SearX are metasearch engines, which pull results from multiple other search engines, hence the nomer “meta.” Sponsor-funded Swisscows is billed as a family-friendly search engine, as it includes a built-in safe search that cannot be disabled.
How to choose the best private search engine
When you use a private search engine, you can have a more active role in how your data is collected and used, but you should expect some tradeoffs. If you’re considering switching your default search engine to something a little more privacy-friendly, here are the main factors to consider.
Privacy vs. personalization
One benefit to having search engines leverage your user data is personalization—these search engines get smarter over time, as they get to know you via the results that you engage with. So, switching over to an anonymous search engine from Google can be a bit of a shock, since anonymous search engines don’t provide the personalization that most of us are used to.
Some people like this anonymity, because it brings them outside their “filter bubble,” showing results that an intelligent search engine would filter out. Others miss searching for “weather” or “Chinese food” and immediately receiving relevant results based on their location.
Search engines that are private but not anonymous, like Neeva, balance privacy and with a higher quality searching experience by collecting some of your data, without sharing it with third parties.
Free vs. subscription-based
Free search engines (even anonymous ones) make money via ads, so there is always the chance of them allowing advertisers to track you, even if the search engine itself doesn’t. Ads can also skew the quality of the search results, by placing paid ads above relevant search results—a system that’s especially frustrating when searching on a mobile phone. Subscription-based search engines don’t have ads, but they do charge a small monthly fee.
If you feel like you’ve developed trust issues after finding out how mainstream search engines track, store, and sell your personal information, you’re not alone. One of the biggest factors in choosing a private search engine is trust. Transparency about which information a search engine collects and how it uses it is important, as is how a search engine makes their money. Neeva has a Bill of Rights outlining its commitment to users, and its subscription-based model means advertiser’s interests won’t outweigh yours.
If you’re interested in trying a privacy-first search engine, you should give Neeva a try. Neeva is the world’s first ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best results for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.